An aerial view of the nuclear plant and processing facilities at Chalk River Laboratories.  (Source: National Post)

The Chalk River facilties opened in 1944 and have operated accident free for almost 50 years now.  (Source:
Canada to restart its Ontario reactor which provides critical medical isotopes

Many believe that independence from fossil fuels is a fantasy, given the current state of alternative energy technology.  While many promising technologies have a long road ahead before seeing commercial use, it is too easy to overlook -- intentionally or unintentionally -- one long-standing bastion of the alternative energy field:  nuclear power. 

There is revived interest in this time-proven, existing technology that could satisfy much of the power demand in the U.S. and abroad.  The greatest obstacle to this interest is the reality that when people think nuclear power, fears about safety and nuclear waste typically are among the first thoughts to come to mind. 

Few realize the advances in containment, safeguard measures, and fuel recycling that make nuclear accidents in modern well-maintained plants a thing of the past and yield plants so safe they could stand up to full onslaught of a major earthquake with almost no environmental contamination.  These advances have also quietly improved the efficiency of nuclear plants worldwide, making their energy more affordable and easier to implement.

Nuclear facilities don't just provide alternative energy, either; they also provide isotopes invaluable to modern medical diagnosis and treatment.  These isotopes are used for everything from diagnosis of cardiovascular maladies to providing radiation treatment for cancer patients.

Cautiously, interest in nuclear power and applications is peaking in the U.S.  The exciting result of this interest can be seen in the recently announcement of the application for the first new U.S. nuclear plant in 30 years, submitted by NRG Energy.  Now the U.S.'s northern neighbor, Canada, is looking to follow by reopening a closed plant and resuming its nuclear efforts.

The recently reopened reactor is in the Chalk River Laboratories, located in Ontario, northwest of Ottawa.  The long-standing facility, which was opened in 1944, became the first facility outside the U.S. to maintain a sustained working nuclear reaction in 1945.  The site's history exemplifies the growing pains that at one time threatened to kill the nuclear industry. 

The site's plants and laboratories were marked by two significant accidents in 1952 and then again in 1958.  The facility is perhaps unceremoniously, best known for the possibly origination of the vernacular "crud" which is thought to be possibly derived from the acronym for Chalk-River Unified Deposit, deposits found by scientists on early test fuel at the plant. 

However, over time Chalk River cleaned up its "crud", adding modern safety upgrades and building new facilities that were significantly overhauled.  The site was and remains chiefly a scientific test facility -- although Canada has multiple other reactors that produce around 150 TWh a year. 

The Chalk River site is incredibly important, though, to the medical field as it home to a plant which produces radioisotopes used in a broad variety of medical applications.  It produces two thirds of the world's technetium-99, an important isotope used as a radioactive tracer.  It is estimated that fifty percent of the world's supply of this and all other isotopes come from this plant and over 25 million diagnosis worldwide a year are thanks to isotopes from this plant.  The facility is expanding, and is in the process of building two new MAPLE reactors and a processing facility to increase its production.

The existing plant was closed on November 18 for routine maintenance, which was supposed to last only to Nov 23.  Chalk Creek Laboratories’ plans hit a roadblock when the shutdown was extended by Canada's safety commissions which demanded the plant replace an emergency power system to the reactor's cooling pumps.  Many saw this move as an attempt to stall the plants operation and or close it, as the site already has extensive safeguards. 

The result was a landmark example for the necessity of these facilities -- over 8,000 patients in the last month were unable to receive needed treatment or diagnostic procedures due to the shortages.

Now, Canada's legislative body, the House of Commons has passed emergency legislation to reopen the path and resume Canada's nuclear efforts.  The legislation came amid a contentious debate between the Liberal party, who fought hard to block the reopening, and their opponents -- a unified front from the Bloc Québécois, Conservative Party, and the National Democratic Party -- who aimed to avert a serious worldwide medical crisis.

The Liberal party's Omar Alghabra sardonically remarked, "Will the minister [of natural resources] or the prime minister, for that matter, tell Canadians what will happen if there's a nuclear accident?"

The Conservative party leader, Stephen Harper, responded, "There will be no nuclear accident -- what there will be … is a growing crisis in the medical system here in Canada and around the world if the Liberal party continues to support the regulator obstructing this reactor from coming back on line."

The Conservatives managed to gain support from many Liberal party members and have passed the bill for emergency reopening through to the Liberal controlled Senate, where it also received the necessary approval.

The plant restarted on Sunday, and will soon provide relief to the isotope deprived medical community. 

The debate marks a growing conviction in the U.S. and Canada that Nuclear Power and technology can and should be safely adopted to treat both medical and energy woes.  Whether such sentiment withstands the wrath of critics remains to be seen.

"It seems as though my state-funded math degree has failed me. Let the lashings commence." -- DailyTech Editor-in-Chief Kristopher Kubicki

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